Today I took my broken heart to the edge of the sea and I reminded it that every breath that’s ever been heaved in this world is still here to be breathed anew. That everyone who ever stood on this earth and did the simple miraculous work of inhaling and exhaling is connected to every other person who ever has. That you are connected to me in this way, and I to another, that our breath reaches back through time to those we’ve loved and lost. There is a constancy there that soothes me, the way the ocean smooths out the rocks at Peggy’s Cove. The waves there are relentless, the ocean’s hand ashore to ease the furrowed brow of rock. The cure for anything, it’s said, is salt water: tears, sweat, or the sea. I tried all three today but remain uncured, for what can really cure grief? Time blunts it, maybe, though not for long. Grief is a rogue wave. At Peggy’s rogue waves are just a fact, like grief is a fact, like every breath that’s ever been taken in and let go is still in the world is a fact.
Finally after eighteen years I’ve learned that what I know about this day can barely cover the head of a pin. I recognize this territory, sure, its rough outline, but it is a seaside in spring changed entirely by winter storms, its road ripped up, its sand carried by the wind and waves a hundred metres away and strewn upon the grass, a beach out of time and out of place. Rocks revealed and covered, revealed and covered. I know enough to know what recent losses for friends will mean. I know the way grief changes families, its thumbs hard on your clay. The way it makes a thicket grow over your path overnight so you can no longer go that way and must find a different way instead. It brings silence to the party it crashes, and regret, sometimes guilt, and recrimination. It is the worst kind of guest, rude and uncaring. A house guest that just won’t take the hint. It belches at the table, and leaves all the towels damp and wadded up in corners where they moulder, unnoticed till it’s too late.
That I know, but knowing only makes it sadder, my own grief compounding theirs, or theirs compounding mine. I have arrived at a place of activism. Death is still so awkward and impolite. Losses are invisible, unless perhaps you’ve also lost. And then there is a choice. Pretend you can’t see, or develop x-ray vision. I’m choosing the latter. I’m trying for a kind of generosity in grief. I know this beach well, I can say. It changes every day, it seems, like the shoreline and the sea, as the poet says, but I know its basic geography, and where the break in the thicket is. I know your clay will firm again and those thumbs won’t press you so. The sand will return to the beach. Those rocks that have been revealed will always be there, but you’ll learn where they are and you won’t stub your toe on them as often.
And for myself, I’m left with what I’m always left with. The pursuit of more, the understanding that none of it is assured. I don’t arrange my life around what I think one of my dear departed would want. I won’t use that as a crutch to do or not do what’s in front of me. I will, however, take to heart the annual lesson to live while I am alive. My brother would have turned fifty last week. When we were twenty and twenty-two I gave him a birthday card that said, on the front: No matter how old you get… and then inside, the punch line: You’ll always be older than me. I can’t stop thinking about that card now. I’m forty-seven this year, and feeling my age in a way I never have. Chris remains thirty-two, with so much undone. I went out to hear some music last week, and one of the singers, Lynn Miles, sang this song. It made me think of Chris, who wanted more of everything, and of myself, and the opportunities I sometimes let slip by. Let me be a wild ocean, constant and seeking. Let me spill over the rocks of my life, salty and alive. Let me always reach. Let there be more.
Winter skies—late fall skies, I guess they have been lately, though the thick crust of snow below them sure reads winter these days—are a gift. They are a complicated, sometimes prickly gift, one you’re not sure you want, actually, if it has to come with certain conditions, like snow, wind, slush, ice. Treachery, danger, discomfort at least. And yet, those skies, the colours they offer a brilliant relief from the gray scale of the day, more than a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down, in the most delightful way. The light they bracket is short and oblique, and if you’re awake for more than eight or nine hours a day, you’re going to see more than your usual share, probably, of sunsets and sunrises. In the last few days, I have nervously anticipated the setting of the sun for the darkness that will fall on the highway I’m travelling soon afterward, but despite that nervous anticipation, a glorious display across the horizon has helped to lift anxiety about what’s ahead, if only for a moment. And I’ve been chased out of bed before dawn by a brain that won’t stop offering me bits of work to think about, conversations to construct or reconstruct, errands I keep forgetting to do, kindnesses I should have extended, battles I should have fought or stayed out of, unease about the future, large and small. I’ve generally been fortunate in my relationship with sleep, especially since I stopped working for The Man. As a self-employed person, I can always get more sleep, and generally, I can choose whether to do something complicated or put it off till I feel more rested. I have not been called upon to operate upon a brain or heart, and so, a few nights of less than optimal sleep brings along pretty low stakes. And when you get out of bed early, you see sunrises that are so lovely you exclaim out loud in a quiet house, and creep out onto a snowy deck in your slippers to luxuriate in it for a moment and snap a picture.
But there is the dark to be reckoned with. So much dark, the most we’ll have this year descending today. And this year has been legendarily replete with dark of all kinds. I have been grateful to have been freed, professionally, from the bonds of having to know what the news is. I have been privileged to be able to turn away, if I need to, from scenes of war and violence, injustice and despair, from racism and sexism played out in streets and communities and halls of legislation. I have had a series of bad dreams in which I am being directly sexually harassed or assaulted by Donald Trump and have shrugged my shoulders in the dream, acknowledging that this is how it is now, and what are you gonna do. I have scrolled quickly past stories about climate change and its ravages, as if it is only my eyes on it that will make it true, and so long as I don’t look, it doesn’t exist. This is incredible privilege. For the dark is real and it is all around us, whether I’m choosing to look at it or not.
This has been a year of peeling back the layers of myself, chipping off the exterior that allowed me to do a pressure-filled job in a witheringly public way. My ability to compartmentalize was almost the most important skill in my quiver, to subdivide myself into selves, to put fear, criticism, shame, uncertainty, anxiety, heart, humanity in separate trunks in my head and slam them shut so I could function on live radio. Freed from that I have discovered that the trunks do not slam shut as easily anymore, nor do I want them to. This year especially, I have been easily moved to tears by displays of humanity and kindness and by displays of inhumanity and cruelty. I am, basically, a single kind or cruel word away from crying at any given time. And though it is, to be honest, inconvenient to be so close to the surface, I want to encounter those layers of myself, sift through my experiences of vulnerability and what I can take from them, leave myself open to criticism, but also to acceptance—both from within and from without. The darkness is real and it is inside us, too, whether we are choosing to look at it or not.
But the light is real too, so real, and it too is all around us. Is it harder to see with the darkness so pressing, or are we fatalists, inclined to believe the worst and to share the worst with each other? Why can’t we see the light as easily? There is the light that’s corny and a little trite, the light that is advertised as “heartwarming,” but those stories in our newsfeeds can feel far away and artificial, or like some special effort made by someone we don’t know, not applicable to our own lives, and hardly a counter to the enveloping darkness anyway.
And yet. There is a crack in everything, it’s how the light gets in. (A world without Leonard Cohen, talk about darkness descending.) The light can be the smallest glimmer. The ease with which my little nephew talks about what scares him and relieves the fear by bringing it into the light a little. An extra moment of conversation with someone who’s clearly overworked or otherwise harried—a moment of pure humanity. The grace with which my spouse agrees to be the anchor in a night of family holiday singalong-ing, which is not a role for which he’d ever volunteer, but when faced with a sentimental spouse on the verge of tears over I Believe in Father Christmas, he steps up. The ordinary citizens who have become galvanized to fight for justice, risking their lives, their comfort, their own ability to turn away from what’s uncomfortable. Circles of friends who truly form a circle, of shelter and support and love, always. Open-hearted people of all kinds who open also their arms, their minds, their lives in service of a better life for others. There is so much light. Sunrise, sunset. Look for it. Be ready to see it. Be ready to be it. Happy solstice. Welcome, winter